I sat at the table. It was two days after I had sent Bala on her mission to check up on my mother. She was standing nearby panting slightly, her cheeks flushed and her eyes on me like I was the only salvation in her life. In many ways, I was. I pulled out the recording stone and touched the symbols to start the playback of her recording. She must have slipped this stone on mother a few days ago. I could now see her walking place as the recording showed what she had done the previous day.
Mother was walking with a determined look on her face. After a moment, she looked both ways as if she was sneaking somewhere, and then slipped into a doorway. Of course, I could only see mother’s actions. The doorway was invisible, and I had no idea where in the castle this was, or if it was in the castle at all. She moved in a way that was certainly suspicious though, and so my eyes narrowed.
“You’ve taken long enough.” A gruff voice sounded from the stone.
Mother’s expression, which was always full of smiles and happiness when she looked at me, now looked dark and displeased. She was looking in the direction the voice came from, her arm on her hip and a perpetual grimace on her face.
“I came when I could.” She said shortly.
“Where’s the money?” The man demanded.
Mother sniffed, tossing a bag of coins from her pocket to what sounded like a wood table. “I’m not even sure I should pay you anything. After what happened to my child last week…”
“He’s alive, isn’t he?” The voice chuckled.
“No thanks to your actions!” Mother snarled.
“Hey!” The man shouted at my Mother in a way that made my hackles rise. “Your son is a devil.”
“He’s your prince!”
“My men are the only ones willing to watch after your son. Do you think any of those other guards would care if he died? Do you think they wouldn’t take bribes and facilitate his assassination? I’m the only reason your son has made it to this age!”
Mother’s body tensed and she shook for a moment before sighing. “Yes… I understand.”
“Heh… next months payment, you can double it.”
“What?” Mother’s eyes shot a furious look.
“Perhaps I’ve been getting other offers?” The voice spoke in a nonchalant voice, “Perhaps I don’t like how I’m being treated after years of loyal service. Of course, I could always pull my protection away. Then, what happens, happens.”
Mother’s expression darkened. ”What do you mean by that?”
“Nothing much. I’m just saying… accidents happen when your son isn’t… protected.”
Mother shook for a moment but then her shoulders dropped, a sad expression showing on her face. “I understand. You’ll have your money.”
As for me, I was visibly shaking. This fucking guy. His protection was virtually nothing. He was closer to a protection racket. The only thing mom was paying to protect me from was this guy himself. I really wanted to wring his neck.
“Of course, I could waive the extra fees…” The voice took on a lewd feeling. “If you pay with your body.”
“Bala… this guard…” I spoke, my voice slightly shaky.
“His name, position, and information…” Bala slid the information to me on a sheet of paper.
I nodded, not daring to glance at it at the moment. My eyes instead remained on the image of my mother.
“I’m sorry, I am not interested.” Mother said taking a step back, a look of disgust on her face. “You’ll have your money instead.”
“Suit yourself.” The voice came out displeased. “Just be careful. There are other payers on the table these days. Money might not be enough to protect your son much longer… and a girl like you only has one other thing to offer us.”
Mother froze for a moment, but then kept on leaving. As for me, I figured these payers likely included Bala’s sister. However, it could really be anyone who had their eyes on the throne. That meant every country who possessed one of my sisters could be bribing guards right now. I was right to be suspicious of them. There was no one I could trust.
Mother left the room with her back straight, not speaking another word to that castle guard. She continued walking for some time, and then she ended up in another location, but it was anyone’s guess as to where she was. She made a gesture as if trying to get someone’s attention.
“My lord… it’s good to see you again.” Mother gave a polite curtsy.
“Not you again!” An arrogant voice responded. “You bore me.”
“Please… my lord, I need an answer on whether you’ll be supporting David when it comes to the succession.”
“Even if I told you I was, would you believe me?” The man shot back with a sigh.
Mother took a step forward. “I would… if you signed a declaration.”
“A declaration? Hah… and lose all of my bargaining chips? Only a half-human like you would be so one dimensional and thoughtless. I might as well place a target on my head.”
“Should David succeed the throne, you will be granted…”
“Should! Should Should Should!” The man responded angrily. “I hear too many should, but I only care about what will happen. Your son barely holds 1/6th of the successive rights. The chances of this kingdom going to him are slim to none.”
“Every side only has 1/6th of their successive right.”
“And the backing of entire countries! What backing does David have?”
“It could be you!”
“Nonsense! I will not risk my life to blindly support this… devil on the throne.”
“If you don’t support him, then who? The elves? The dwarves? The beastkin? David is our only choice to win. Any other, and the kingdom will fall! Where will your power be then? Your life? My son is the only choice!”
“Enough… I tire of this conversation. I’ve said before and I’ll say again, I’ll join the side that’s going to win. Convince me David is the winner, and I’ll be happy to support him, devilhorns and all.”
The pair shared a few words of pleasantry for a bit, and then Mother made her departure again. She met person after person after person, and every time, the conversation had a singular purpose. Me. Or rather, Prince David. Many meetings had suggested that this had been going on for some time. Perhaps, she had been having meetings like this since the day I was born.
While I was growing up, this woman had tirelessly performing meeting after meeting with troublesome people who either hated me, or at least were apathetic. Sometimes, it was about ensuring my security. Sometimes, it was about increasing my strength in the kingdom. Sometimes, it was simply about making sure my food was checked and not poisoned. Yes, my mother even bribed, and subtly threatened, the kitchen staff. They had been taste testing my food before delivering it years before Aeryn.
I had always wondered how a guy like Prince David had been able to survive in a world as hostile as this one for as long as he had. Now, I understood. His mother had worked tirelessly, as she had been created to do, to make sure he was protected and respected. There were limits to what she could manage, but there were supporters of mine in this castle. I wasn’t completely alone in this respect.
To think, I had doubted this woman, and had her daily activities put under scrutiny, and she had always been absolutely loyal to me. I felt my heart hurt for a moment, and a wave of guilt shoot over me. I finally shut off the display, holding the recording stone in my hand. After a moment, I looked up at Bala, sincere appreciation on my face.
Bala started to smile, but then stopped herself, her expression instead turning angry. “I didn’t do this for you!”
I chuckled and then rolled the vial across the table, which contained another dose of her anti-serum. She grabbed it and downed the vial instantly as if she could have enough drink. Finally, her cheeks started to return to normal, and her breathing became less ragged. Her usual cold self-returned after a few moments.
“I have done as you ask.” She shot coldly. “May I go now?”
I raised my hand for a second. “First… about that guard.”
Her expression grew even chillier. “You want me to kill him?”
That actually sounded like a really preferred option, but I rejected it instantly. “Actually, he’ll be joining us on the journey to the elf realm. Make sure he is assigned as one of my personal guards.”
She blinked, clearly not expecting that answer. “Very well… I will…”
Bala wasn’t a particularly bright girl, so she didn’t really understand things like keep your enemies closer. He would pay for his exploitation of my mother, it just wasn’t something I wanted to take care of here in the castle. It’s something I’d be able to handle easier once we were out and on the trip. This man would pay for daring to threaten her. That was one things that I was certain of.
Bala left the room, leaving me alone with Aeryn at attendance. I had spend the majority of my time reading and trying to get a better grip on this world. In the meantime, I had done nothing to help maneuver myself politically. In fact, I was no politician, so thoughts of political maneuvering went right through my mind. I had no clue what I’d need to do to set things up. Meanwhile, my mother seemed exceptionally active in this front. Perhaps, I needed to start taking lessons from her as I was taking sword lessons from Bala.
“Your mother seems to love you very much.” Aeryn spoke softly as she watched me stare at the stone.
I looked up at her and nodded. “It looks like my life has troubled her greatly.
“Your life is problematic for everyone.” Aeryn shot back, but she didn’t have a lot of strength in it.
“What happened to your family, Aeryn.” I asked.
Aeryn made an ugly look. “They were killed by devils. That is all there is to it.”
“That much, I already knew…” I sighed, leaning back. “Tell me something new.”
“Am I your entertainment now? Shall I tell stories and dance a jig?” Aeryn responded bitterly.
“I could watch you strip instead?” I offered, giving her a flat look.
Aeryn lowered her expression, acquiescing defeat. “I don’t remember my family very well, so there is not much to say. My mother was strong and beautiful. My dad was part of the local militia. It was right at the outbreak of the 7th devil war. They attacked us without warning. I heard that my father fell on the wall. It was lucky, as he didn’t have to see what was done to my mother.
“She was turned into a slave… just like you have done to me. I was barely two. She was raped in front of me, and then impregnated with a demon’s seed. Well, I didn’t understand anything about devilkin blood or seed at the time. I only knew that a devil had his way with my mother, and my mother put up little resistance. I had hated her for so long. It was only recently… after you… that I realized how helpless a situation she had truly been in. “
“…” I lowered my head, not really sure how to respond.
It looked like her history was more complicated than I had initially thought. No wonder enslaving her had been such a mental blow. She had watched the same thing happen to her own mother when she gained such a hatred towards devils. It spoke volumes to her strength that she was able to come out of it and become a maid at a castle.
“A demon seed, does that mean your mother was pregnant? Does that mean that you have a devil brother or sister out there?”
“If mother spawned a devil, it’d be no sibling of mine!” She snapped, turning away. “That day never came anyway. We remained under devil occupation for three years. People would call me lucky. I was too young to become a devil’s plaything at the time. Furthermore, my mother became the plaything of someone with some rank, so I was protected in that respect. I used to remember that devil trying to manipulate me. He’d make mother say all kinds of crazy things.”
“What kind of things.”
“That devils were good. That mother and him were in love. Basic propaganda. Devils will tell you the sky is green and the grass is purple if that will allow them to meet their ends. They tried to brainwash me into joining their devil ranks, but I resisted.”
Some of her words didn’t make too much sense to me. If all it took was some seed to control women, what was the use of brainwashing her? I didn’t know what to believe, but I was willing to open to the possibility that her mother choice to give herself to this guy, and perhaps even loved him. There were stories like that all the time when people occupied a country. The mother did what she could to protect her child. Nothing about the seed made someone stop being themselves. Even if her mother was under his control, she could have still spoken to her daughter frankly in private. However, with Aeryn opening up to me for the first time, I didn’t want to interrupt her story either.
“After three years, a coalition finally forced the devilkin out of our village.”
“You said that devilkin killed your mother though.” I frowned.
“She was a slave to a devil. He tried to take her with him as they fled, but my mother refused to leave without me. So, the devil abandoned her and saved himself. The human/elf coalition burned my home to the ground with my mother still inside. I had been hiding from the devils as soon as the trumpets blared. I knew they would try to steal me and drag me back to their wretched lands. That’s why I hid. I didn’t know my mother would stay.”
“So, it was humans…”
She shot me a teary-eyed look full with anger. “That devil could have ordered her to come. He could have made her. I wanted nothing to do with mother, it would have been fine. The second she was turned into a slave; she was a liability. Of course, the humans would have cut her down. That devil understood that more than anyone, yet decided to leave her behind. I ended up by myself anyway, so he could have at least saved her. However, letting her burn was his way of cutting loose ends. That’s the way your kind think. Slaves like me, we’re just bodies you can order around.”
“I don’t consider you just a body.” I responded cautiously. “I don’t want to use you at all.”
Aeryn spun away. “All you do is use me. You’re just like him, that man. That’s why… that’s why I’ll always hate you!”
Aeryn stormed out of the room with that line, slamming the door as she left. I had a distinct feeling there was more to the story than what she told me, but I also was convinced I wouldn’t be able to get any of it out of her. Aeryn had her own past to contend with. From two to five, she had been under devil occupation. That was the 7th devil war, which had ended only thirteen years ago. Some here said that the devil war was instigated because of me.
The devils had learned that a devil prince was born, and some blamed me entirely for the war that left so many harmed. However, I was only a baby at the time, as young as Aeryn. There was nothing I could do about the war. Well… I was starting to speak like it had anything to do with me. That was David’s war. I had no guilt in the slightest when it came to this kind of thing.
I spent the rest of the day pondering her story, as well as my future plans. When we traveled to the elvish nation, that would be the true start of everything. Once I made my move, there was no stopping things. Aeryn, Mother, and Bala… I now had three pieces on the board. As for Baba, she was unpredictable, and I didn’t really understand where she lied. She helped me out that one time, but that didn’t mean she’d help me out again in the future. Thus, I only had the first three. With those three women, I needed to change the fate of the entire realm.
I took a long drawn out breath. “This is going to take some thought.”